Fred Wilkes was hiding in the garden. He could pretend he was stretching his legs, inspecting the flower beds or killing the time, but he knew what he was doing was hiding. Fred wasn’t particularly proud of his actions, he knew he should be waiting in his study smoking cigars as his wife screamed her way through the pain and peril of childbirth but Fred Wilkes had wanted to escape. He could not bear to be in the house if Mary died, he could not bear to hear her last groans of agony. Instead, he walked around
the grounds of his house, chain-smoking Turkish cigarettes and feeling like a coward. He hated feeling so helpless, while upstairs Mary was in pain and in danger. For the last year, he had done everything he could to make he feel safe and now through his own love and passion he had put her in danger. He wished he could take some of the burden of childbearing upon himself and cursed himself for his own selfishness in wanting an heir. He walked and fretted, stealing frequent glances up to the window of Mary’s room. He could do nothing and it half-killed him to know that.
For the first six months of Mary’s pregnancy, a beautiful serenity had washed over Loxley Grange. As the roses in the garden bloomed forth, so did the mistress of the house and Fred Wilkes watched his wife’s swelling belly with pride. When the summer weather made eating indoors uncomfortable, Fred had arranged for great picnics to be held by the weeping willow by the moat. Mary loved lying there, watching as the green waves of leaves dancing in the breeze. Sometimes she wished she could set her bed up there in the peaceful shade, as the heat had started to disrupt her sleep as did the baby who seemed to be dancing a foxtrot.
The first dark cloud that summer had been the death of Lady Chiswick, who had died giving birth to her third child. The Chiswicks had hardly been intimate friends of the Wilkes but their acquaintance had been close enough for them to shed real tears at the funeral service. Fred knew his wife well, he knew she became taciturn when scared and the growing silence between them after Lady Chiswick’s death told him more than a thousand words. Mary had become haunted by a memory, that would not leave her, day or night.
She could not shake the memory of her Aunt Lucille, her mother’s sweet-tempered and somewhat dizzy sister. Mary had been just six years old when Lucille had been lost to the horrors of the childbed. She had clutched her mother’s hand as she walked in to the bedroom where Lucille and her baby lay as still as marble effigies on a tomb. They were the first dead bodies Mary had ever seen; her beloved aunt looked peaceful with her hands clasped in prayer and the baby swathed in white lace looked exactly like Mary’s wax doll. From that day forth, Mary never played with a baby doll again. Mary’s mother’s face had been taut with grief, her clasp tightened as she leaned over to kiss the cold cheek of Lucille. Fear had bubbled inside Mary has she had been picked up to kiss her aunt’s dead body, feeling the cold unyielding flesh beneath her lips. She looked up at her mother, desperate for a word of consolation.
“Remember, my darling,” Mrs Taylor had said, choking on her tears. “That the childbed can very easily become your deathbed.”
Since Amelia Chiswick’s death, those words seemed closer than ever.
The fear had begun to seep into her dreams and as Mary tossed in her bed, the baby lying still in the bed was a wax doll and the cold cheek she kissed was her own. When Fred rushed into his wife’s boudoir, he found her cold and sweating with a fear that she would not share with him. Closing up like an oyster when she was worried was Mary’s speciality, Fred thought with affectionate exasperation. He knew the more you pushed her, the tighter she closed up. Most women would weep and gush their worries forth, but Mary locked tight. A first she denied angrily that anything was worrying her but Fred was prepared this. He understood her perfectly; every sigh, every smile, every frown and every stare was mapped out in his mind. Fred had waited patiently, until gradually her reserve wore down and she told him in quiet sobs the fears that consumed her mind.
Usually Fred could find a way to laugh away her fears but this time he had grown silent and grave too. A life without the wife he adored, the woman who was his beacon in the darkest of storms, to lose everything he had fought for; it seemed too bleak a future to contemplate. Mary’s heart had been hard to win and even harder to keep, but Fred would always maintain that her love was the greatest of all his wealth. Fred dealt with his fears in his usual way, by spending vast sums of money. He engaged the services of not one, but two Harley Street doctors who disagreed with one another on nearly everything except the fact that Mrs Wilkes was in a fine state of health for an expectant mother. However, they were professionals and justified their exorbitant fees by frequent and diligent examinations of their patient. The near-constant presence of doctors convinced Mary that she was weaker than they admitted and that they expected the delivery to be fatal to her.
For Mary, the greatest pain was the idea of Fred all alone again in the world. She knew he would never be short of female company, for her husband was always a ladies’ man but she also knew that without love, Fred’s heart would become calloused and hard once more. She could not bear to think of his loneliness. It hurt her to think her child would never know the love between his parents. She began to write. Inside her, their baby kicked and squirmed as Mary scrawled down every memory she had of their marriage. From the day she had married a virtual stranger, to the day she had nearly drowned in Hersdean Lake. It was everything she could bequeath her child, an unflinching account of how she had fallen in love with her most unlikely hero. She poured her soul onto the paper. It had hurt to lay all her secrets bare, to reflect calmly on her own weakness and destruction. She grew impatient with her past self, angry at the pointless lies and tears. In the heat of an argument, Fred had once told her that her tendency to blame herself for everything had bordered on self-indulgence and looking at the story on the dry pages it seemed Fred’s angry words had more than a little truth in them. Mary had scarcely finished the manuscript, when the pangs of labour had begun. Before she called out to alert anyone, she hurriedly scribbled a final message for her child in case she could not whisper those words when the baby was born. She wanted her child to know they were loved even before they were born.
Blue smoke clouded around Fred’s head as he paced up and down the lawn, the darkness had begun to creep in. Fred took a deep sigh and returned to the house. It had been nearly fifteen hours since Mary’s labour had started and still there had been no news. Fred poured himself a large port and tried to settle down in his study. It seemed like a century to Fred before he heard the heavy tread of the doctor on the stairs. He stood to attention as the doctor entered, with a joyful smile on his face.
“It’s a boy,” the doctor said. “A fine, healthy boy.”
Fred took a deep breath and allowed himself a moment to bask in the joy of happiness of fatherhood. He longed to hold his son in his arms, to look into those new eyes and make him every promise in the world but there was one more thing he had to hear.
“And my wife?” A knot formed in throat as he asked.
“Oh she is quite fine, your wife is a strong woman,” the doctor said airily.
Fred climbed the stairs with mounting excitement. He burst into the room where his wife lay flushed and beaming. Mary was tired, hurting and utterly in love. She refused to let the nursemaid take the baby from her, staring deeply into his eyes that burned bright with life. There was so much joy in her eyes as she stared down at her son, his skin against hers had taken away all the fear and all the pain. At that moment Mary wished she could live that moment forever, never step away from that moment of pure love. Fred watched her with glowing pride. He stepped forward and kissed her on the forehead.
“I’m proud of you, my girl,” he grinned and stroked his son’s cheek gently. “He is a handsome chap.”
“Oh Fred, I really thought I was going to die and never see such perfection,” Mary sighed.
Fred leaned down and kissed his wife once more, he loved her more than anything that moment. She looked stronger than a goddess and as lovely as the dawn. Motherhood was already suiting her. Fred tried to put out of the mind the black fears he’d succumbed to not one hour earlier.
“You, Mrs Wilkes? Die? What rot,” he kissed her one final time. “Even at your weakest, you are the strongest woman I know.”
With that, Fred looked down at his son once more.
“And you, my son,” he continued with a soft smile. “Are the luckiest of babies.”